BAGHDAD - A barrage of rockets targeting an American military base in southern Iraq yesterday killed three US soldiers, bringing to 12 the number of Americans killed in Iraq in the past three days.
Just after 6 a.m., about four rockets crashed down on Combat Outpost Adder in an attack that also wounded two other US soldiers and one civilian, said Navy Lieutenant Patrick Evans, a US military spokesman.
With the overall US military death toll in Iraq nearing 4,000, the latest killings mark a significant rise in deadly attacks against Americans.
At least 3,987 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes eight military civilians.
The military reported that another soldier died and two more were wounded Tuesday near the southern city of Diwaniyah when a roadside bomb exploded during a combat patrol.
The American deaths occurred the day after an explosion killed 16 passengers on a bus that was traveling near Nasiriyah. Conflicting accounts emerged yesterday about the blast, with the bus driver and a passenger asserting that passing American soldiers opened fire on them, an allegation US military officials denied.
The Scania bus was carrying about 60 people, all but five of them women and children, who were traveling home to Basra after attending a memorial service. An American military supply convoy drove past them in the northbound lane, according to passengers. At about 1:40 p.m., an explosion tore into the driver's side of the bus and blew out the other side, filling the bus with black smoke and the screams of the passengers, they said.
The US military said in a statement that a lethal roadside bomb known as an "explosively formed penetrator," or EFP, slammed into the bus and also blasted the passing convoy, wounding one US soldier and a civilian in the convoy. The bomb, which shoots heated copper slugs, was similar to other EFPs that American military officials say are manufactured in Iran.
But the driver, Zeki Abdul Qader, and a passenger, Qasim Salih Jubur, said they believed the American soldiers opened fire on the bus after it had already safely passed what they were later told was where a roadside bomb had exploded. They said their bus was struck with bullets seconds before they were hit with an explosion they believed was some sort of rocket or grenade fired from the American vehicles.
Qader said he was reaching the tail end of a long military convoy when he heard gunfire and the sound of bullets striking his bus.
"They shot me with small arms from the beginning of the bus to the end, the whole side, then they shot this rocket," Qader, 58, said by phone. The explosion tore through three rows near the middle of the bus - two passengers on each side of the aisle per row - killing 12 people almost instantly, he said. Four others on the bus were also killed, he said.
"The bus turned to all black smoke, you could see nothing, and all the windows blew out except one or two," he said. "The bus went off the road, and I tried hard to keep it from flipping over."
After the bus stopped, US soldiers cordoned off the area around the bus and Iraqi soldiers arrived at the scene. Both Qader and Jubur said they did not see American soldiers firing but heard the gunfire and were told by the Iraqi soldiers at the scene that the Americans had fired.
Abbas al-Khafaji, who directs the funeral home in Najaf where the bodies were taken for washing and preparation for burial, said one infant and at least four women had bullet holes in their bodies in addition to shrapnel wounds.
The latest deaths occurred as a group of Iraqi tribal leaders, former politicians, and intellectuals appealed yesterday to the United Nations to take control of Iraq in a move they say would help US troops leave the country.
Both the Bush administration and the Baghdad government are unlikely to endorse the request, which was addressed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and delivered to the Cairo offices of the organization.
"We believe that the only opportunity left for Iraq to be saved from a dark, but not inevitable future, is to engage the international community represented by the United Nations," the letter said. "Such a step will allow the American troops to leave and the occupation to be brought to its end."
The group's coordinators include Adeeb al-Jadir, Ahmed Al-Haboubi, and Nouri Abdel Razak Hussein, politicians overthrown in 1968 when Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party came to power and long part of the liberal antiregime opposition prior to the US-led invasion in 2003.
The UN dramatically curtailed its operations in Iraq after an August 2003 suicide attack killed its representative and scores of others. The United States has been pushing for an expanded UN role in Iraq but that did not include supervising the country.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.